Clockwise from top left:
Patrick Fang, 16, US, has lived in Beijing for six years
Jack Todd, 15, UK, has lived in Beijing for 15 years
Julia Choi, 17, South Korea, has lived in Beijing for five years
Valeriya Anopchenko, 17, Russia, has lived in Beijing for 15 years
When it comes to air quality in China, much of the domestic and international attention has focused on smog and PM 2.5 levels. However, the country also suffers from a much older and more familiar problem: smoking. With 350 million smokers, China holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest tobacco consumer. Smoking is entrenched in local culture; giving and receiving cigarettes is not only accepted, but encouraged. Regulations do exist, but are virtually never enforced, even in large cities like Beijing. beijingkids spoke to students at Beijing City International School (BCIS) to get their take on the issue.
Why do people smoke?
Patrick: There’s a physical aspect. People do it because it feels good, and sometimes that turns into addiction.
Valeriya: It’s also because they get stressed and want to calm themselves down.
Julia: It could also be their environment. If smoking is very normal, then you naturally pick up that habit.
Jack: People sometimes do it because they don’t want to be left out of certain social situations. Their friends might not want to be friends with them if they don’t smoke, or they might be considered outcasts.
Does smoking make you look more sophisticated or mature?
Patrick: In this day and age, smoking shows a lack of ability to make good decisions. Everybody knows that nicotine is very addictive and bad for long-term [health]. Doing it now does not make you look cool; it just says you’re unable to process the information [available to you].
What do you think the minimum age for buying cigarettes should be?
Jack: Anything that doesn’t end with “-teen.”
Valeriya: It’s not so much about the age, but the point when a person is able to make their own decisions. For example, when they’re ready to drive or drink [Patrick chimes in: “Hopefully not at the same time!”] – that’s when they should also be able to make their own decisions about smoking.
Julia: Let’s say you’re 20 and you’re already addicted to smoking – what if you regret it then? In terms of making decisions, you’re mature enough at 16. But deciding whether this is going to be a long-term thing and that you won’t regret it? I think you’re still too young.
The percentage of smokers in many Western countries is going down, but rising in China. What do you make of this?
Valeriya: In Hungary – where my friends live – they’re not letting supermarkets sell cigarettes, only [specialized]shops. The price of cigarettes is also going up.
Patrick: In the States, some places have a cigarette tax so you pay a subsidy to the government whenever you buy cigarettes. In China, [the percentage is rising]because of changes in culture; cigarettes are a huge part of the Western image in Chinese people’s minds. Also, stress about work and school is rising – and cigarettes are cheap, as well.
Valeriya: It’s way too easy to get them; no one enforces regulations.
Jack: There’s a stereotype that lots of [vendors]just want to con people out of money. They see teenagers who come in trying to buy cigarettes, and some have no morals [about selling to them].
Julia: Chinese culture takes relationships very seriously – guanxi, they call it. I did an internship this summer and noticed that co-workers always go off to smoke [in a group]. They talk about things that maybe wouldn’t be up for discussion in the workplace, but it’s still about work.
Some countries put a high tax on tobacco products to discourage smoking. Is this fair to smokers?
Patrick: It’s simply unhealthy for society to have a high percentage of smokers, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s fair to smokers or not. It’s unhealthy in terms of productivity and health expenditures, and the government has to spend taxpayer money to offset that.
Do you think high taxation actually works?
Jack: It’s just a little bit at a time, isn’t it? It’s not paying the entire year’s worth of cigarette [tax]at once. [A tax on one pack of cigarettes] is less than a person’s wage; they’ll just keep buying them until they literally cannot afford them.
Julia: That’s a good point. People don’t really buy their cigarettes in bulk at the convenience store, so it wouldn’t seem like a big expenditure.
Valeriya: There are a lot of people who don’t smoke much in Europe, but when they come here they do because it’s way cheaper. So [taxation]may not stop people from smoking completely, but it can make them smoke less. [More effective deterrents] would be limiting supply and making sure the age limit is actually enforced.
Patrick: Specifically in China, there should a penalty enforced for selling
to underaged people. [Another deterrent would be] those disgusting pictures of people with mouth cancer [on the pack].
Valeriya: [Educating people about the dangers of smoking] is still helpful, but you have to start early. If you only teach someone at age 15, that person has probably already tried cigarettes.
Jack: People are very skeptical at that age; I don’t think there are many skeptical 6-year-olds.
Patrick: But you shouldn’t make them so petrified they’re scared to leave the house [laughs].
photo by Mitchell Pe Masilun
This article originally appeared on p40-41 of the beijingkids September 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com